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NEW YORK — John Singleton can relax. Any danger of his long-in-development Tupac Shakur biopic being beaten to the punch by Holler If Ya Hear Me is quickly dispelled by the deflating experience of this well-intentioned but toothless Broadway rap musical. The show is not a biographical drama but a story of friendship and family, gun violence, racism and redemption in an inner-city black neighborhood, inspired by Shakur’s lyrics and poetry. However, therein lies the problem. The music is often powerful and the performers uniformly capable, but the songs are a poor fit for narrative presentation, at least in writer Todd Kreidler‘s cut-and-paste of cliched situations and stock characters.
One of the most influential figures in hip-hop, Shakur’s stature has continued to grow in the 18 years since the rapper was killed in a drive-by shooting at age 25. During his lifetime, his divisive music was considered contradictory, often seeming to condemn the brutality of gangsta rap culture in one breath and celebrate its flashy excesses in the next. But the enduring legacy of his politically charged lyrics is one of sorrow at the vicious cycle of violence bred out of entrenched racism, poverty and police profiling.
That might have been rich fodder for a gritty musical in more skilled, less literal hands. The storytelling approach of stitching a narrative fabric around thematically related songs is similar to what Michael Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong achieved so excitingly with Green Day’s American Idiot. But Kreidler, whose main credentials come via his association with revered playwright August Wilson, borrows from countless urban-aggression screen dramas of the past two decades, bringing very little that feels vital or original to the table.
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The decision to set the show in an unnamed Midwestern industrial city and establish the time as now makes sense, aiming for universality while avoiding associations with the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop feud of the early ’90s. But what we get instead is a bland, black West Side Story with a lot of sermonizing about social ills and a rumble that never happens.
Director Kenny Leon, fresh from a Tony win for A Raisin in the Sun, introduces the brooding central figure of John (Saul Williams) as he descends in an elevator cell and sheds his orange prison jumpsuit to return home after six years inside. But he remains emotionally locked away, keeping his buddies and his former girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) at a distance. That becomes difficult when innocent local kid Benny (Donald Webber Jr.) catches a bullet intended for his older brother, drug-dealer Vertus (Christopher Jackson), and the victim’s friends push for retaliation against the gang that shot him.
The fact that Benny was nurturing a dream to flee the ghetto and start a new life, opening an auto-shop in California with his mechanic pal Griffy (Ben Thompson), is just one more tired narrative ingredient. It doesn’t help us to distinguish Benny from the other interchangeable characters or feel his loss when it occurs a short way into the show.
One of the key issues is that the actors, no matter how talented, have nothing but hackneyed outlines to play. Tonya Pinkins is every African-American mother who ever grieved for a child lost to senseless gang violence. The soulful Sengbloh is every self-possessed girlfriend smart enough to move on rather than wait for her man to serve out his jail time. A street preacher (John Earl Jelks) bears solemn witness to the struggle around him, but he remains a symbolic presence in a story that desperately needs flesh and blood characters.
A buzz of recognition spreads through the audience when popular Tupac anthems begin — among them “Dear Mama,” “Whatz Next,” “California Love,” “Me Against the World,” “If I Die 2Nite,” “Thugz Mansion” and “Ghetto Gospel.” Themes of love, family, honor, identity and community are embedded in those lyrics. But while the frequent musical transitions from spoken word into melody can be energizing, particularly in ensemble numbers, there’s little plot momentum or character exploration. The music mostly just reiterates the same point about the need for change to end the violence.
In one of the rare moments when there is an organic progression from one song to the next — the guys’ macho swaggering on “I Get Around” prompting the ladies’ proud response with “Keep Ya Head Up” — choreographer Wayne Cilento‘s staging has the kitschy, ‘90s-retro feel of a Fly Girls dance break from In Living Color.
Williams, best known for the 1998 Sundance winner Slam, and Jackson, who starred on Broadway in the more upbeat, Latin-flavored rap musical In the Heights, are both charismatic presences whose contrasting intensities work well together. But there’s a tendency with rap to perform concert-style, directly addressing the audience rather than engaging with other people onstage. The prevailing impression is of Broadway performers playing at projecting tough street attitudes, not of any kind of authentic experience being depicted.
Edward Pierce‘s scenic design is made up largely of panels and scaffolds splashed by projections of John’s prison sketches and drenched in Mike Baldassari‘s dynamic lighting. It’s grim, industrial and a bit drab. Not that a more naturalistic staging was necessarily the way to go, but this stylized presentation lacks atmosphere.
The real estate challenges of Broadway are tricky, and often producers have to grab whatever theater is available or play an uncertain waiting game. Holler If Ya Hear Me might have been a tad more electrifying in a smaller house than the Palace, which has been downsized by around 600 seats for the production. But the stadium-style reconfiguration turns half the orchestra seating into an awkward empty space that greets theatergoers upon arrival. For a show already battling to sell tickets, that expanse of unoccupied seats sends a bad signal.
While it might be remembered as the first Broadway musical to use the N-word as punctuation (as well as the M.F. one), this otherwise looks likely to be forgotten fast.
Cast: Saul Williams, Christopher Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh, Ben Thompson, John Earl Jelks, Joshua Boone, Dyllon Burnside, Tonya Pinkins, Tracee Beazer, Afi Bijou, Mel Charlot, Carrie Compere, Otis Cotton, Brandon Gill, Ari Groover, F. Michael Haynie, Jared Joseph, Jahi Kearse, Muata Langley, Valentine Norton, Christina Sajous, Charlene “Chi-Chi” Smith, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Donald Webber Jr., Joaquina Kalukango
Director: Kenny Leon
Book: Todd Kreidler
Lyrics: Tupac Shakur
Set designer: Edward Pierce, based on original concepts by David Gallo
Lighting designer: Mike Baldassari
Costume designer: Reggie Ray
Sound designers: John Shivers, David Partridge
Projection designer: Zachary Borovay
Music supervision, orchestrations & arrangements: Daryl Waters
Musical staging & choreographer: Wayne Cilento
Music director: Zane Mark
Executive producer: Richard Martini
Presented by Eric L. Gold, Chunsoo Shin, Jessica Green, Marcy Kaplan Gold, Anita Waxman, Afeni Shakur
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